Opinions vary, but when has that ever not been true.
Emery Farm porch drinking maple sodas; bi racial gay couple with dog arrives; dog comes to us; they tell us dog’s name; they tell us his pronouns are “he/him” – the dog; they go inside, leaving dog comfortably with us. When they come out again after some minutes, I explain that my pronouns are “Royal We/Royal Us”. Brown guy smiles – “this person made a joke”, he thinks. White guy looks like he’d like to chastise me, probably wondering if I’m cancellable, my evident unwillingness to play his woke game seemingly … well, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”.
Having said that, let’s cement my thinking on socio-political matters by saying I am a big fan of Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Konstantin Kisin, 3 people with brain. Amala Ekpunobi also great. The list goes on.
So, triggered yet? No? Wonderful.
But I’m a creep; I’m a weirdo;
It has been a little over a year since my oncologist told me I have years to live. Three years ago I was told the mean life expectancy for someone like me (“like me” – c’est risible, n’est ce pas?) was 2.5 years. But that supposition rested on the idea that I would not respond well to mitigating efforts. When I did respond well, well …
At the time, during that first week of “Sorry, dude, it’s stage 4 and incurable”, I have etched in my memory standing in a hallway at MGH and, with moist eyes and a quavering voice, expressed my desire to get back to Paris once more. A white coated medic smiled at me and assured me that would be possible.
“Well, uh, that’s nice … but how does that mesh with the …?”
So, since then I’ve been back to Paris, and other fav spots in France and Italy, 3 times. I’ll write about it later. I mean, other people write in mainstream media all the time about travel. In fact, just a few minutes ago Francesca and I had our morning cappuccino and WSJ read (the WSJ is the only news outlet that does not annoy the fuck out of me with slanted political leanings, left and right). There was a travel section – yay. The first article was about the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Yay again. But, wtf. 50% of the article was all about the author’s feelings as she walked to some old theatre, her description very reminiscent of those gothic novels a friend of ours used to be addicted to. You know the ones: a bare chested pirate or prince looks to the horizon, and a beautiful young woman looks up longingly at his face, one shoulder of her dress being torn in whatever tremulous adventure they’d just experienced. And then it hit me: I’m a 74 year old curmudgeon, and this article is not in any way, shape, or form, aimed at me. This article is a textual selfie, TikTok or Instagram post. The author is the star, Sicily the romantic backdrop. I’m a Boomer. This was aimed at Zs or younger Millennials, not me, at all. My time is over, as is the time of the truly harrowing travels of Henry Morton Stanley, whose account of traveling up the Congo River scared the bejesus out of me as a grad student. THAT was travel! Anyway, so there it is. Still, the last paragraph of the article I found quite pleasing. This was something more than just a selfie; it was an experience, and at the end she managed to pull out an awesome summation involving cultural adaptation and yearning. Well, this was, after all, the WSJ.
What the hell am I doin’ here?; I don’t belong here
While I’m on the subject, Francesca and I went to a Labor Day gathering at the home of a former UNH physics professor. All the other attendees were either former UNH physics people, or their significant others.
One of the attendees was a fellow with a german accent named Jochen Heisenberg. When food was served people broke into two groups to munch their food. Jochen sat to my left. A friend had informed me he was related to the illustrious Werner, but I hadn’t by that point put in my hearing aid, so I missed the explanation of how distantly related Jochen was to Werner. Being me, I asked him. “He was my father,” he replied. WTF! Ok, so I spent a year and a half as a physics adjunct at UNH sharing that space with the son of Werner. However, Werner Heisenberg was never in the running for my fav physicist from that seminal era. Bohr and Pauli were my least favorite; Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Einstein somewhere in the middle; and Dirac, with no close second, by far my favorite. Not a hero, mind you – I don’t do those – but Dirac’s philosophy of science was similar to mine, and my published work builds directly upon Dirac’s.
I mentioned to the younger Heisenberg that I admired Dirac the most. He nodded, accepting the validity of my opinion, it seemed. Then he told me that well after WWII he had gone to a conference with his father. At some point Dirac, having been made aware who Jochen was, wandered over to him and introduced himself. Fascinating. That was uncharacteristically forward of Dirac.
Francesca and I then proceeded to dominate the ensuing conversation, which I gently nudged in a socio-political direction. I felt compelled to do this as the vast majority of academics – this group being no exception – have, as Francesca puts it, drunk deeply of the Woke Kool-Aid, and their socio-political views I felt confident I would find irksome. So I started by saying I was a fan of Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Who? Not a single one of these progressive muggles had ever heard of either. And when I explained their podcasts could be found on Youtube, a source of streaming videos including the history videos Francesca and I watch every morning while eating breakfast in bed, one person wondered how that was possible. Is Youtube a TV app? With great effort I refrained from smacking my forehead in frustration. (I mean, really, I may as well have been trying to converse pleasantly with a group of yak herders in Outer Mongolia; no common ground, see? More uncomfortable pauses than actual sharing.) So, assuming they were aware of the intellectual firmament in 1920s Europe, I proceeded to regale them with my encyclopedic knowledge of that decade’s art scene in Paris. That went over better.
Remember in one of my books this gem? As as adjunct physics teacher at Brandeis U, after a particularly lively class, an older student (quite a bit of grey in her hair) came up to me and said, “You don’t belong here.” Indeed. That was a very incisive comment. I did not belong in academia. Still, it would have been somewhat more useful had she explained where I did belong. Other than as Francesca’s husband and soulmate, I’ve found no home on this world. Maybe that’s enough, and always will be.
Mi chiamo 7stones
I have been learning French via DuoLingo for many years. I got to the point where I knew continuing down that path would result in negligible further rewards. I wasn’t going to remember a lot of the somewhat more advanced material it was hitting me with. Furthermore, Francesca and I, my health being sufficient, plan to spend our next EU vacation in Switzerland and Italy. French will not be needed. Still, I didn’t want to give up on French, but I needed to learn more Italian. Brilliant idea: learn Italian on DuoLingo, but with French as the base language. Two weeks in and I am very happy with this switch.
Finally, 7stones.com is my web address, but, in the years since established, other entities in the world have also used 7stones for their internet presence. For example, there is a shipping company in Nigeria, which tacks on an .ng to distinguish it from mine. But the internet is intricate, and not error free. I get frequent emails relating to recent business dealings with this other 7stones. I seldom look at the emails – it’s pretty dry stuff – but I find my inclusion in some of the company’s doings strangely delightful. I should investigate their retirement plan.
“By far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.”
This, to me, is a self-evident truth. But there is a meta-level to this truth: even if everyone in the world recognized its inescapable veracity, that would have a negligible to zero impact on the way in which people lived their lives. Wisdom is vastly overrated, as is the notion that humans have a consciousness, something we periodically trot out as a talking point in regard to machines, and whether they have, or ever will, attain consciousness. Well, if we – a collective of preprogrammed NPCs – have consciousness, then so have some machines. Yeah, uh, so anyway …
I got an email from a friend with whom I attended 2 years of college, and 2 years of graduate school. He’d seen an online eyeball catching CNN article positing that some experimental physicists in Hungary may have found evidence for a 5th force, something for which the wildly successful Standard Model could offer no explanation. He wondered if my work offered an explanation. I replied (Pyrenees is a reference to the mathematician Grothendieck who left his family and career at some breaking point and headed to those mountains to live out his life as a kind of monk; my own personal Pyrenees consists of Paris cafes, whenever I can get to them):
“I settled in the Pyrenees long before I figured out everything that my model could imply or predict. Everything it does predict (antimatter mirror universe and neutrinos being Dirac fermions) is either well established, or being actively investigated. If the mainstream ever does agree there is an antimatter mirror universe, my work (2015 paper) will not be referenced. A wise French Canadian mathematician (another grad school friend) told me that academia is a jungle.
“Anyway, there is a whole 6-dimensional space connecting my matter and antimatter universes, but it carries SU(3) color charges, and anything passing through it would be completely altered in the passage. Is it possible to transverse through this weird space. No idea. I refuse to leave the peaceful Pyrenees in pursuit of an answer.”
Disappearing from the life of active research is a good way to disappear in reality. In 1993 I organized a workshop in Sweden on octonions in physics, called Octoshop. I did it again in Britain in 2000. A fellow, Tevian Dray, took up this series thereafter – once or twice. I was not invited, and to this day those that are aware of the Octoshops at all are unaware I ever had anything to do with them. TD, evidently, has a vested interest in my disappearance. That was a good start.
Then in the early 2000s a young woman (Cohl Furey) at the Perimeter Institute (the center of the world, for the uninitiated – just ask them) wrote a paper in which she used my ideas, but failed to mention my work beyond a weak footnote that made it seem, to CF, and those advising her, irrelevant. I complained, and my mention achieved something slightly above dismissive footnote status in a subsequent rewrite.
Not too long after that, Quanta Mag, a (once) respected online source of science journalism, cottoned on to her work (a couple of papers by then), and a female on the Quanta staff, delighted that she could extol the virtues of a female physicist doing work, she assumed, at the cusp … well, this Quanta journalist wrote and published an article about CF in Quanta Mag that was an excellent example of apotheosis. As to my two books and close to 30 papers on this very same subject, well, the article proclaimed that I had given up on my ideas in the 1980s having failed to cadge an academic position. Gosh … As I recall I finished my PhD in the 1980s, and then had a series of postdocs, … anyhum. My last paper on this line of research was published in 2018. My best paper in 2015. My 2nd book in 2011. Weird. History rewritten. It was now becoming part of lore. Wired republished the article, putting a layer of concrete over my grave.
My work is based on an algebra that has come to be called the Dixon algebra. And as I first put the thing together, and spent decades uncovering its mathematical oddities and connections to physics, that seems only fitting. Recently an interesting mathematical paper appeared in arXiv:2303.11334. This applied the Dixon algebra in a novel way to a well-known mathematical object, extending it in an interesting way. And the paper did a splendid job of littering its text with mentions of the Dixon algebra, and even applied my name to their new extension (Dixon-Rosenfeld lines). Great, right?
Well, here’s the thing: they referenced my work 5 times, the most recent reference to my 1994 book now published by Springer. The oldest reference was a 1986 paper in Phys Rev D. And nothing more recent. Furthermore, this failure was used to support a contention that I’d given up my work in this field in the mid 1990s. Sigh. And they further averred that work applying the Dixon algebra to physics was “revived” in the first decade of the new millennium by … care to guess? That’s right! CF! Not coincidentally, the authors thanked CF for several fruitful discussions.
In yet another paper appeared this: “Following on from work by Günaydin and Gürsey on the link between quarks, and octonions, and by [CF] on chains of octonionic multiplications, …” Oh, for fucks sake. 20 years before CF entered the picture, I developed and exploited these “chains of octonionic multiplications”.
But there it is. It’s like language. We may resist the ineluctable mutation of our native language under the assault of inventive youths, but resistance is futile. I have always been an oddball in the world of theoretical physics – an outlier. Not one of the gang, with no gang to support my priority to anything. TD now owns the Octoshops. CF is slowly but surely covering everything else of mine with her imprimatur. TD is a kind of Salieri like individual. CF is … you know, I’m borderline elderly now. CF is much younger, and trying to crystallize a life in academia in a field that is greatly diminished since the LHC put the kibosh on a majority of mainstream theoretical notions. I wish CF well in this effort, but she is not also a Salieri figure. I don’t want to think it, but she increasingly comes across as something darker. Machiavelli would be proud. https://youtu.be/GTQlnmWCPgA
Still, she is the only one pursuing work even remotely linked to mine, so, go Cohl! Bonne chance!
Moving on, members of the mainstream are actively investigating the possibility that our universe has an antimatter twin. My 8 year old prediction of this will doubtless form an integral part of this work … or it would do if anyone were aware of it … and if that integral inclusion would not tarnish the reputations of … So, yeah, academia is a jungle. https://arxiv.org/abs/1407.4818
Tony Smith once told me he likened himself to Beethoven, and me to Mozart. Well, thanks Tony, but this is a version of Mozart who has no acolytes, nor anyone interested in promoting his work. Defenseless, the jackals gather around, sniffing for weakness, growling … Bad dogs! (At the time I mentioned to Tony that I could hum some works of Beethoven, but none of Mozart.)
Today is 2023.05.11, a few weeks after the above was written. And truth be told, I wrote that more as a kind of self therapy, with no real plan to publish it. But tomorrow CF is slated to give a zoom talk on the Division Algebras and the Standard Model. If she pisses me off, I may in fact post this blog. Maybe.
On the other hand, maybe not. Among the small group of people who devote themselves to the role the division algebras play in the design of our physical reality, I am evidently becoming increasingly invisible, but that small group – while not completely invisible in the big picture – manages to make only the most ghostly and evanescent of presences in that big picture. Why should I be concerned that my presence is indiscernible in that barely visible smudge. The word quibbling comes to mind; as does the word querulous; as does the combination, “querulously quibbling”, and , I suppose, “drama queen”.
So, anyhum, if perchance this is published, and someone reads it, it is for reasons outlined below, and presently, not in possession of all the facts, (“Just the facts, ma’am”), what those reasons may be are mysterious to me, other than they will have given rise to querulous quibbling.
[Next day] So, yeah, she gave her talk. It was nice. On the other hand, although she’s the only person left in the world doing anything remotely like what I was doing, when I was doing stuff, if the approach she limned in her talk is correct, then I was rather an idiot in those days when I was doing my stuff.
She welcomed the youngsters out there, who’ve more recently begun to think the octonion algebra is a worthy direction of study, into the fold, but added a caveat that this study direction has proven historically to be an impediment to cadging a sinecure in academia. She herself has been hanging on by her postdoctoral fingernails for several years (or so I assume). I hope she manages to hang on for several more. She’s well short of the age at which I gave up the ghost, and from my new perspective, at a heavenly height above it all, was able to look down and say, “Oh, shit, that whole milieu is vapid dreck!”
Something must be said about the other speakers in this lecture series. Some few are senescent, dredging up work they’d done 30 to 50 years ago, adding a word about how maybe octonions could be incorporated. The most prominent of these was Roger Penrose. (He referenced me once, in a large tome on the shape of physics. But it was not a positive reference. His twistors, at least at that time, relied solely on the complex numbers, and he suggested that those trying to incorporate the higher dimensional division algebras into explanations of the design of reality were misguided. My first book was so referenced.)
I watched Roger’s whole talk on zoom. It consisted of almost an hour of slides I’d seen before – maybe close to 40 years before. Having been offered an audience, however, and, like many of his prominent cohorts, totally addicted to regaling a noncritical audience on the glories of their pasts, he filled us in on his stunning youth. And then – irony recognized – he briefly outlined how octonions could be shoehorned into his work.
The next speaker is 84 year old Stephen Adler. I always admired his work on quaternions, but the title of this new talk doesn’t interest me, so I won’t be letting it intrude on my upcoming EU vacation.
Two notes to finish off. Peter Woit recently mentioned in a blog that Stanley Deser had died. He was a listener to my PhD oral defense. He grumbled about it being overly algebraic, but I got through anyway. I ran into him by accident in Göteborg, Sweden, during Octoshop I. We recognized each other, nodded hello, then disappeared from each other’s lives. His wife was Swedish.
Another professor at that university, Marc Grisaru, is now an Emeritus. He it was who tried to get me kicked out of the PhD program because I had negligible interest in his idée fixe, supersymmetry (yes, the same supersymmetry that the LHC had failed to find any evidence of). So, Marc, I see you still list yourself as actively involved in SS. How’s it going? Good? Found a way around its many failings? Good, good …
Incidentally, after Cohl’s talk I sent Tejinder Singh, a co-organizer of the octonion lecture series, an email:
“I consider it a huge lapse that more mention of Murat Günaydin was not made, especially in regards to the exceptional Jordan algebra. After Gürsey surrendered his work on octonionic SU(3), Günaydin carried on with his own investigations for decades. I have a box of his papers in a closet, from the days when paper was the only format.
Part of the narrative of this present lecture series is that CF initiated interest in the field with her few papers. Not that they’re bad papers – they’re not – but my work, and that of Günaydin, predates hers by decades, and continued on for 2 decades after her initial foray into the field. To justify that narrative, however, it would be necessary to limit mention of those whose work would render the narrative null. She did mention the “Dixon algebra” (begrudgingly? Maybe. Maybe I was being over sensitive.), and she did list one reference: my 1994 book, highlighting the fact that I was old news. (You know, I didn’t seriously think of giving up on academic dreams until January, 2000, at which time I was co-teaching a course at Harvard with Sheldon Glashow. But it would be 18 more years before I stopped working on, and publishing, my stuff. And gol durn it and fuck it, I am going to publish this, for the sake of putting history somewhat right, for me, and the 1 or 2 people who ever read my … my … not sure what to call this. Let’s stick with querulous quibbling.)
Credit, where due
During my lengthy peripatetic life in academia I never once had a permanent position. As a consequence, for the two Octoshops I organized it was necessary, in each case, to enlist the aid of people who did have strong relationships with institutions that could host the bloody things. In 1993 that was Martin Cederwall in Göteborg, Sweden. Martin’s introduction of the octonion X-product is a beautiful, and underrated piece of mathematics.
In 2000 the Octoshop was hosted by Tony Sudbery at the University of York, but he handed the actual organizational work to his graduate student (or was she a postdoc?) Christine Barton. Tony and Christine worked together on the Magic Square. Their worked is still frequently referenced.
The point is, although I got the (golf) ball rolling in each case, without cups to roll into in Sweden and England, nothing would have come of my Octoshop dreams.
Francesca, my adorable super talented tenured professor wife, started her Spring semester today (2023.01.17). Well, that’s not quite right. She’d already “started” working from home, getting all her obstreperous ducks in a row, but she did manage some thoroughly down time when we went to Naples, FL, for 4 days to visit her elderly uncle and aunt. They are wonderful people; the weather was warmish each day, and a little fuggy; and the pace of life, but not the temperature, was glacial.
Burnouts and disappointments 01
Of Georg Cantor’s thoughts on infinity and set theory, “the great mathematician Henri Poincaré, said.. that Cantor’s mathematics was a sickness from which one day maths would recover. And worse… His one time friend and teacher, Kronecker… said that Cantor was a corrupter of youth. Cantor felt that he and his ideas were being caged, or quarantined here as if they were some kind of sickness.
“By May of that year [look it up], he has a massive nervous breakdown. His daughter describes how his whole personality is transformed. He will rant and rave, and then fall completely and uncommunicatively silent. Eventually, he’s brought here… to the ‘Nervenklinik’ in Halle, which is…an asylum. Today, we would say Cantor suffered from manic depressive illness. From Cantor’s time, we have left, the case notes of most of his psychiatrists. In the notes for example, we see that he, at times, was quite disturbed, was screaming… and see that he was really suffering from… severe bouts of mania.”
Goings on 02
I must say, that getting into the swing of life in Naples, FL, was no walk in the park for me. After two days I was craving the crisp cold air of NH, and the presence of a population most of whose citizens understood that an automobile’s righthand pedal was for acceleration, a fact of which they highly approve, and put to good use. One grows weary, after a time, of watching elderly pedestrians with walkers pass one by on the highway. It tears at the very fabric of what I think of as reality.
Still, I managed to body surf in the Gulf of Mexico a little. Here’s proof:
Well, it would be proof had not this annoying pedestrian walked in front of Francesca’s iPhone while she filmed me mid-ride.
Burnouts and disappointments 02
“Just as Cantor had revolutionary ideas in mathematics and was opposed, so Boltzmann, his contemporary, had revolutionary ideas in physics, and was equally opposed. This is Ludwig Boltzmann’s grave. And that…carved on it, is the equation which killed him. And it did so, because like Cantor… Boltzmann’s ideas were out of step with his times.
“In 1906, Boltzmann came here to Duino, with his wife and daughter on holiday. Exhausted and demoralized, his ideas still not accepted. While they were out walking, he killed himself, and left no note of explanation.”
“Wilhelm Ostwald, one of Boltzmann’s colleagues from his time in Leipzig, wrote an obituary for Boltzmann in which he lamented that science demanded so much of its practitioners. ‘This falls under the laws,’ wrote Ostwald, ‘to which almost all servants of the strict goddess Science are subject: their lives end in grief, and this all the more likely, the more completely they have dedicated their lives to Her.’”
Goings on 03
So, as I say, this is Francesca’s first day of the Spring semester. She has risen high in her department (chemistry), just below the department head, who plans to surrender that onerous position at the end of this semester. No one else in the department wants the position once it is vacated, so, as a last resort, they’re bringing in an outsider to fill the post. There are a couple of candidates, and Francesca is required to interview them to determine if she can stomach either as her boss in the 23/24 academic year. You know, it’s understandable that no one internal wants the position. And these outsiders are undoubtedly viewing this post, as annoying as it might be, to be a chance to leave wherever they presently are for a well respected New England university with an excellent STEM reputation.
Burnouts and disappointments 03
Kurt Gödel’s story is not atypical. “Incompleteness began to eat away at his own beliefs about the nature of mathematics. His health began to deteriorate, and he began to worry about the state of his mind. In 1934, he had his first breakdown. But it was after he recovered, however, that his real troubles began, when he made a fateful decision. Almost as soon as Gödel has finished the Incompleteness Theorem…
“he slowly starved himself to death.”
He completed this process at the Princeton IAS, where he became a close friend of another great mind hiding out at that institution, Einstein. One assumes Einstein would have made efforts to bring Gödel out of his paranoid darkness, but alas, his efforts, whatever they may have been, failed.
Goings on 04
So, Francesca and I have breakfast in bed (this being a school day, it was prepared by me, consisting of smoked salmon, tea, and a variety of fruits). To keep things calm – or so I thought – I made the mistake of putting the TV on YouTube, selecting one of several “LoFi Girl” animations with their soothing music. Why was this a mistake? Because it made Francesca completely lose track of time, and an hour before she needed to, she got up in a panic and started putting herself together. Having done so, she faced me, as usual, awaiting my assessment of her outfit. Her school outfits are always quite a few levels above her cohorts, and this morning’s outfit was no exception, generating a kind of Egyptian queen vibe. Not frightening, but definitely authoritative, and very chic. It was good. (Occasionally, being an aficionado of things fashion myself, I’ll suggest a change, but this is rarely needed). Anyhum, she’s now dressed, hoping she’s in time, looks at the clock and discovers she has an hour left. Lofi Girl strikes again. I am forbidden from putting on anything but news henceforth, the news metronomically ticking away the time with some accuracy. We both like Lofi Girl, with her cat, stuffed animals, computer backpack, and laptop, but she’s just too soothing for a work day.
Burnouts and disappointments 04
“So when in March 1952, [Alan Turing] was arrested, charged and found guilty of engaging in a homosexual act, the authorities decided he was a problem that needed to be fixed. They would chemically castrate him by injecting him with the female hormone estrogen.
“On the 7th of June 1954, Turing was found dead. At his bedside, an apple… from which he had taken several bites. Turing had poisoned the apple, with cyanide. Turing was dead …”
Fucking Vogon Brits. Never-mind his brilliant code breaking efforts during WWII that helped the Vogons avoid being overrun by Adolf’s minions. And recently a film was made about Turing and this work. He was evidently portrayed well, and glamorously, but in an unbelievable oversight the film completely ignoring the barbaric treatment he received at the end by his countrymen. I will never watch that film. Bloody fuchsia hell.
Goings on 05
This being an every other Tuesday I had lunch with a cluster of people who, like myself, were once affiliated with the University of New Hampshire. One still is. UNH is just down the road from our house, and my ability to cadge an adjunct teaching position there when we moved to New Hampshire was what enabled me to pay the mortgage for the first year and a half.
This cluster of people range in age from about 57 to 92, so I’m right in the middle. My time at UNH was relatively short, so when they all talk about the good old days, I am usually at a loss.
Burnouts and disappointments 05
“Ernst Stueckelberg developed the vector boson exchange force model as the theoretical explanation of the strong nuclear force in 1935. Discussions with Pauli [an arrogant bastard, IMO] led Stueckelberg to drop the idea, however. It was rediscovered by Hideki Yukawa, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1949 — the first of several Nobel Prizes awarded for work to which Stueckelberg contributed, without recognition.
“He suffered mental health problems and was given the treatment which was common at that time, namely administered electric shocks. Although the problems continued to recur, Stueckelberg was able to carry out his duties. A few months before his death the struggle was becoming too much for him. He said:- ‘I look forward every day to my eventual journey to Heaven … We live too long …’”
“‘The new ‘spin’ was a bit of a comeuppance for Pauli. He’d started out the year, after his usual Christmas holiday in Vienna with his parents, by stopping on his way back to Hamburg at a small university in southern Germany. There, he’d been approached by a young physicist who thought he’d come up with a good idea to explain the two-handedness of the electron: spin. Pauli ridiculed the idea and so deflated the young scientist that he never showed his paper to anyone else.”
— The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition, and Science by Sheilla Jones
A few of my quotes are from Sheilla’s book, by far my favorite book on those heady years. This quote makes me wonder how many bright young minds Pauli quashed via his knee jerk negativity. By the way, the “comeuppance” referred to above pertains to a pair of theorists at Leiden independently attributing spin to the electron. Evidently they did not consult Pauli on the viability of the idea, and it was soon broadly adopted. Of course, theoretical physics being the circus sideshow that it is, the idea is often attributed to Pauli.
Goings on 06
It is now a day later. Francesca and I are seated at our favorite cafe, both with laptops open before us. We’ve finished lunch. I had fried eggs, sourdough toast and bacon, because Francesca likes to steal half the bacon. She had a bowl of some vegetable matter. While eating I got out my Kindle and read a chapter of the latest Brunetti mystery to which I am addicted. At one point Brunetti’s wife, Paola, feeling that her husband’s company is beginning to grate, tells him to go away. “Watch television”, she tells him. “I hate television”, he replies. “Then come help me with the dishes.” The ever resourceful Brunetti replies, “I love television.”
Brunetti and Paola are Italians living in Venice. Donna Leon, the author, is an American, but lived for several decades in Venice. Her sense of humor is wry and wonderful.
Burnouts and disappointments 06
“From the correspondence with his close friends, from May 1931, it appears that Paul Ehrenfest suffered from severe depression. By August 1932, Einstein was so worried that he wrote to the Board of the University of Leiden, expressing deep concern and suggesting ways in which Ehrenfest’s workload could be reduced.
“Having made arrangements for the care of his other children, on 25 September 1933, in Amsterdam, Ehrenfest fatally shot his younger son Wassik, who had Down syndrome, then killed himself.”
Ehrenfest attended the 1927 Solvay conference and was a contributor to the founding of quantum mechanics, an activity that never resulted in the rewards he craved. He’s third from the left in the back in this photograph. I’m seated on the ground in the front, my participation in that conference is little known.
Goings on 07
Speaking of Europe, as mentioned in several previous episodes, Francesca and I plan once again to wend our way to Italy and France this May/June. It now looks like this: 5 days Turin; 2 weeks Santa Margherita; 5 days Nice; 2 weeks Paris. We’re going to attempt to do this without a car this year. The wisdom of that decision is unclear.
Airbnbs for the first three locations have been arranged. I am feeling rather chuffed, and hope that in 5 days when my cancer gets a look-see at Mass General that my general feeling of optimism will be rewarded. [It was.]
Burnouts and disappointments 07
Freeman Dyson once said: “Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.”
Alexander Grothendieck, in everyone’s estimation, was a bird, brilliantly excelling in abstraction, but often perplexed by the frog’s eye view.
“Grothendieck worked in a very very (often unnecessarily) general and abstract framework which is enough to make any mathematician ‘swept away’ (according to Pierre Deligne).”
This tendency to abstraction was a pathology for which there was no cure.
“One striking characteristic of Grothendieck’s mode of thinking is that it seemed to rely so little on examples. This can be seen in the legend of the so-called ‘Grothendieck prime’. In a mathematical conversation, someone suggested to Grothendieck that they should consider a particular prime number. ‘You mean an actual number?’ Grothendieck asked. The other person replied, yes, an actual prime number. Grothendieck suggested, ‘All right, take 57.’ But Grothendieck must have known that 57 is not prime, right? Absolutely not, said David Mumford of Brown University. ‘He doesn’t think concretely. … He never really worked on examples,’ Mumford observed. ‘I only understand things through examples and then gradually make them more abstract. I don’t think it helped Grothendieck in the least to look at an example. He really got control of the situation by thinking of it in absolutely the most abstract way possible. It’s just very strange. That’s the way his mind worked.”
And that way of thinking eventually led to a kind of psychological break with reality.
“For the last two decades of his life he broke off with the maths community, his wife, a later partner and even his children. He sought total solitude in the village of Lasserre in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here he wrote remarkable self-analytical works on topics ranging from maths and philosophy to religion.”
Most writers on that period of his life are generous in their understanding, seemingly providing him immunity to labeling him gonzo at the end. However, my reverence for his work, with which I have something barely above zero familiarity, leads me to a harsher conclusion. He was, I suspect, never entirely all there … but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But during those last 20 years he was definitely gone, despite having a physical abode.
But who am I to say? It’s complicated. Personally, I gave up my pursuit of truth in theoretical physics because I knew I was headed for the Pyrenees. I will go to my grave convinced that my “ideas [are] out of step with [my] times.”
Many prominent mathematicians and theoretical physicists ended their lives peacefully. People like Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac and Einstein, received enough acclaim during their lives to keep their minds intact, their egos inflated. But what about Gödel and Grothendieck? They too received ample recognition during their working years, and yet … Abstraction was the serpent in their Eden. They bit – bit very very hard – and eventually they were expelled from Eden into some place less nice. (On the other hand, Grothendieck doesn’t look unhappy in that photo. On the other other hand, had he been so changed by that point that this was a new person? On the other other other hand, was this a better person, more content?)
Il y a plus
“German scientist Julius Mayer actually came up with the notion of conservation of energy a few years earlier than either Helmholtz or Joule, but he was working as a Dutch ship’s doctor in the West Indies and was seriously out of the loop. Mayer, upset that his work remained unappreciated by the science community, tried to commit suicide in 1849 by jumping out of a third-storey window, but he succeeded only in breaking both his legs. He ended up a cripple in an insane asylum.”
Marco Tavoro Ph.D. posted this on LinkedIn: Ettore Majorana was a brilliant physicist who mysteriously vanished in 1938.
According to the renowned physicist and Nobelist Enrico Fermi: “There are [many] categories of scientists; those of 2nd or 3rd rank […] never get very far. Then there is the 1st rank, those who make important discoveries […].
But then there are the geniuses, like Galileo and Newton. Majorana was one of these.” Indeed, according to colleagues, his grasp of physics was almost unrivaled.
He published his first paper as an undergrad. A flurry of important papers followed. However, according to the CERN Courier Magazine, “[He was] a genius who looked on his work as completely banal: once a problem was solved, [he] did his best to leave no trace of his brilliance.”
At some point in his life, he started to suffer from nervous exhaustion, became a hermit, and shut himself off from the world. Theories about his disappearance abound: suicide, fleeing to South America, entering a monastery, kidnapping or murder, etc.
Fermi told his wife, “Ettore was too intelligent. If he has decided to disappear, no one will be able to find him.”
[It appears he ended his days in Venezuela, his own personal Pyrenees.]
[This is probably not Majorana. Someone compared this face to Majorana as a young man. Still, this guy looks does look happy. I need to believe Majorana was happy, too.]
[From the web: “He was not killed, nor did he commit suicide, much less shut himself up in a convent. Ettore Majorana, world-famous physicist, who grew up in the atomic study center in via Panisperna, in Rome, placed by some experts between Newton and Einstein, disappeared mysteriously in 1938, was alive in the period 1955-1959 and lived in Venezuela, in the city of Valencia. This was ascertained by the Rome prosecutor’s office which, after opening a file in 2011 on the scientist’s disappearance, has now asked for it to be dismissed.” Yay.]
Cafe closing soon
I’m reasonably content with this blog, but have no idea what to write about next. Maybe I’ll just put together some happy encounters with local canines.
Years ago (counted in moons, it’s many), being a borderline voracious reader, and as a consequence often encountering words with which I had a marginal familiarity – or none – I began collecting those words, and their definitions, in a notebook, which I name my Dixonary, the idea being that I might use them myself in my own writings. Looking over this Dixonary all these years later, a goodly percentage of its collected words no longer perplex me. I am confident in their usage, and have almost certainly employed them to good effect as time went by. But some words still perplex me. For example, opening the book at random, I encounter the word “inspissate” (to thicken, as by evaporation). I have no idea where I might have encountered this word in my reading, but I feel confident that I only encountered it once.
Consequently, the words in my Dixonary can be divided into two broad classes: those that I use or might use, many of which will please me inordinately in so doing; and those that make me wonder what the author was thinking in using the particular word, a word I suspect very few readers will be familiar with. These latter words I do not use, for what is the point, other than showing off? If my readers will have no clue what I am on about, because they have to turn to google to make sense of it, then … really!
My first encounter with an unusable word, as I deemed it, was “hebetude” (an absence of mental alertness or physical sensitivity). In my Dixonary, not surprisingly, this is the first word in the H’s. I encountered this word in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (by S.R. Donaldson), a series of books I read in my early 20s. Perhaps I misunderstood the central premise, but it was my understanding that Thomas somehow became embroiled in the affairs of another world, and was destined to be its savior, but only – and here is the nub – if he never believes he is the vaunted savior. At the time, imbued with more than my fair share of the self-importance of youth, I identified strongly with Thomas.
Yeah, so, anyway, there was this word, “hebetude”, which I’d never before encountered, and have not encountered a second time in the 50 or so years since. What should I do with this knowledge? The author of the sci fi book series liberally sprinkled his text with words of some obscurity. It was a trifle annoying. I decided the wise move was to avoid using words of similar ilk, unless they really really pleased me.
By that point in my life I had discovered P.G. Wodehouse, and although I do not read him much anymore, if asked on my deathbed who was my favorite author, I might spew forth with some spicy invective in response to the query, but in my head I’d be thinking, “Wodehouse, with no close second.” Donaldson was, in my opinion, priggishly proud of his education and vocabulary. Wodehouse, whose fine English education gave him a similarly highfalutin command of individual words – which he never abused – had also an unsurpassed command of something much more powerful and entertaining than mere words. Wodehouse was a master of phrases, word combinations that always made me giddy with intellectual glee.
At some point I realized that a Dixonary, while useful, was insufficient on its own, and I added a new section of phrases, most – if not all – drawn from the writings of Wodehouse. (I should add that I own over 70 Wodehouse titles, many of which I’ve read multiple times; this makes my memory of a former sister-in-law, who wondered how many books I’d read in my life, which she guessed would be around 50 … and, yeah, um, that memory was an eye opener.)
Many of the phrases P.G. employed, which pleased me so much, and which he applied in surprisingly delightful ways, were not devised by him, but arose from his English education. For example,
“convey with look and gesture”
“come to realize in the fulness of time”
“cut off from the exercise of certain qualities”
“imperil the cordial relations existing between”
“hebetude” (just kidding)
You know, I seem to remember prattling on like this on this very same subject at sometime in the not too remote past. Well well. I recently turned 74, a perfectly adequate excuse, but then, even at 34 I would occasionally astound my listeners with a story with which they had some familiarity due to my having told it to them in the past. But that’s not a problem here, for I doubt I anymore have listeners, or readers, of my drivel. So I’ll finish with a Wodehouse quote of a type that fills my spirit with sunshine, but will doubtless leave you entirely unmoved, even if you were there … which you are not.
“As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across premieval swamps and Uncle James’s letter about Cousin Mabel’s peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle (‘Please read this carefully and send it on Jane’) the clan has a tendency to ignore me. It’s one of the advantages I get from being a bachelor – and, according to my nearest and dearest, practically a half-witted bachelor at that.”
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly
Some time sensitive physics related material at the bottom, hence this episode comes early.
So, last night (2022.10.23) I finished Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris, by Mark Braude. She was the incandescent heart of the art scene in Montparnasse between 1919 and 1929. Unlike many others in that place and in that time, she was herself her own greatest work of art, an ephemeral thing lacking in solidity, unlike the works of myriad artists in that place and time who were blessed by being male, and creating works the public endowed with staying power. Kiki painted; she modeled; she sang and danced; she was outlandishly independent and modern. Hemingway wrote the introduction to her memoirs. But the Great Depression and Hitler put a violent end to that glowing era, and, in the 20 years following, her world, and her physical self, fell apart. She was nicknamed The Queen of Montparnasse, but she ruled over a time, not just a place, and like many a disenfranchised and displaced royal, in the end she was never able to surrender to her new status, to the loss of The Luminous Years. The likes of Hemingway and Picasso survived the turbulence intact, but in the early 1950s Kiki died, already largely forgotten, on the pavement outside of her apartment building.
Man Ray, whose photographs made him an International celebrity, was eventually buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse, but Kiki was placed in a more anonymous grave in the Cimetière Parisien de Thiais. Her tombstone, while it was there, read: “Kiki, 1901–1953, singer, actress, painter, Queen of Montparnasse.” I can’t find an image. (There are hundreds of images of Man Ray’s grave littering the internet.)
Two of Man Ray’s most famous photographs – well, all the best, really – are of Kiki. My favorite is Noire et blanche, which everyone who is anyone, knows was taken by Man Ray, of Kiki. And yet, the last sentence of the book I just finished, quoting from a newspaper or magazine, reads: “In 2017 Christie’s Paris sold a print of the 1926 work Noire et blanche, attributed to Man Ray, showing an unnamed woman with closed eyes holding a mask from the Ivory Coast, for more than $3 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for an early twentieth-century photograph.” (Underlining is mine.) That’s just gut wrenching. An unnamed woman posed for a work attributed to Man Ray. Christie’s Paris should be publicly flogged.
French friend Maryline said that Kiki’s grave was a temporary thing, a pauper’s grave, and after 20 years its lease was up, she was disinterred, and her remains disappear from history. Cremation likely. Erased. Perhaps Christie’s Paris could shed some light …
To paraphrase Roy Batty: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… The art scene in Montparnasse in the heart of the roaring 20s … the glittering cafes filled with artistic brilliance. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”
There is a graphic biography of Kiki I finished recently (by José-Louis Bocquet). This is the last page, taking artistic liberties in interpreting how Man Ray reacted to her passing. No one had a longer relationship with her, but the only artist of note to follow her coffin was Fujita, a Paris-based Japanese painter who thought she had been splendid.
In the Bahamas there is a string of over 365 islands called the Exumas. A number of individuals with lots of money, much of it earned in the public eye, like Johnny Depp’s, have bought islands there. It’s warm, and unlike southern California, or Florida, it’s largely free of paparazzi and other noisome representatives of our species. And unlike the Seychelles, it’s relatively close to mainland USA. Some Silicon Valley successes, like Larry Ellison, also have their own Islands. This includes another, whom I shall not name, who made a fortune in the Valley, and afterwards pursued a longtime passion, mathematics.
You know, when I think of people who possess such privacy, beyond the laws of my homeland, I generally think of three individuals – two fictional. At the low end, Jeffrey Epstein, whose convenient “suicide” in prison spared the reputations of many prominent people; in the middle range, Dr. No, a fictional megalomaniac brought down by James Bond (I consider pedophilia and sex trafficking a la Epstein to be far more loathsome than megalomania; given the opportunity, I’d like to try my hand at megalomania – sounds fun); and finally Thomas Crown, the Pierce Brosnan version, another fictional character, but one with great charm, who owned a mansion in the Caribbean, and someone Hollywood had imbued with an ethical standard that would never sink to pedophilia or megalomania.
So, yeah, this unnamed Silicon Valley tycoon owns one of these islands (he may own more than one), and I will generously give him the moniker Thomas. And I recently received an email, that gave every impression of being from Thomas, inviting me and Francesca down to his private island to discuss my work in mathematical physics. My initial email reply, given the dearth of details in Thomas’s email, was “I am intrigued”. I felt it wise to play it cagey, seeing as how Thomas’s email was so unbelievably outré. I sent a second message indicating that my first missive meant I would appreciate details. I also explained that I haven’t done any work on my mathematical ideas in 9 years or so. All this was by way of testing these waters, and testing Thomas. If he does not reply, then he fails the test, his ego possibly affronted by my cavalier response to his invitation. And I think it goes without saying that owning a private island in the Bahamas requires an ego. If I had the money, I might buy one, because my ego is planet sized – a really big planet, mind.
See, Francesca and I drove to the beach yesterday (2022.11.02), and we discussed whether the email could be some sort of phishing scam, the intention being to elicit information from me that might enrich the phisher, and impoverish me. But phishing scams are generally very generic. They can be applied to vast numbers of people with only minor textual changes. Thomas’s email, au contraire, was highly specific. He even knew we’d been to Paris, and that my previous science output involved the division algebras and physics. He knew I was married. All this information is online, but it’s an awful lot of effort to put together that email to target me if the author was in fact not Thomas, and someone with nefarious intentions. And I was able to check with only a little effort that Thomas owned an island like that described.
It’s all very gratifying, of course, given that – in my opinion – my mathematical physics work is more than a decade beyond where mainstream thought is stuck (so my work is largely ignored; the mainstream has utterly no use for it, because they’re happy playing with 40 year old blocks that don’t seem to fit together, and never will). So, I’ll keep you posted, but even if Thomas deems me insufficiently in awe, and never replies, it’s still gratifying. Like, cool, man.
2022.11.10 Update: There has been no further communication. Perhaps he was high when he wrote his email. Still, much appreciated and all …
In a past installment I discussed how, while in Milan a while ago, on my favorite street, we had a lunch at a restaurant that did really good truffle dishes. Long before the meal, Francesca became weak in the knees just by the aroma of that wonderful street, suffused as it was with the scent of those trés cher fungi. The lunch sent her into orbit about the moon. I watched every bit of this experience, and I am convinced it was true. She wasn’t faking it. And why should I have harbored any doubt? Because I have never smelled nor tasted any truffles I have been near or imbibed.
At the time, being too lazy to actually determine the facts of the matter, I assumed the solution to this mystery lay in our genders, mine being of the wrong sort. But we recently visited my last remaining sibling, a sister, and I asked her if she had ever had a knee-weakening experience with truffles. She became snide, implying that the whole mystique of these ground growths was a sham. She never tasted or smelled anything. AHA! I thought. It’s not gender, it’s genes, much of ours being Scottish, far removed from the centers of French and Italian truffle culture.
Finally I went to google. There I found a WSJ article that says:
“You’ve paid a small fortune to sample one of the world’s great delicacies: truffles. Your waiter ceremoniously shaves a few grams over your pasta. All around you, diners are sighing with delight. But you smell zilch, and your companion complains that the pricey fungus reeks.
“It’s a fact — people react to truffles in vastly different ways. Now scientists are closing in on why. Nearly 25% of the population do not smell androstenone, a chemical that contributes to truffle’s signature musky aroma (and makes female pigs go into mating stance). Another 40% of people are keenly sensitive to androstenone; they say it smells like rotten wood or sweat. The rest of the population likes the smell.”
They concluded their article with this: “If you’re tempted to drop several hundred dollars on a truffle dinner, ask a specialty food store to let you take a whiff of a truffle or a high-quality truffle oil made with genuine truffles. If you smell nothing, or overpowering notes of rotting wood, urine or sweat, you may want to save your money for another delicacy.”
Interesting. Another article had slightly different statistics: “In summary, 50% of people find the smell of truffles offensive, 20% find it appealing and 30% don’t get it.”
Meanwhile, that map above shows the regions of Europe where the delicate fungi are to be found indigenously. (One region is white truffles, the other black, I think. The taste and smell of white truffles is said to be stronger.) The growing conditions have to be just right. Look it up. But the big takeaway from this map is the total lack of truffles in Scotland, England, Germany, or Ireland, whence comes the majority of my genes … although there might be some French. And given the fact that the musky scent of truffles act as an aphrodisiac for females, especially if you are a pig, it is small wonder that in the regions pictured above people love truffles. Those who do love them, and find them sexually stimulating, over the centuries they have likely out-bred the rest.
So, Francesca is part of the elite 20%ers, and my sister and I in the neutral 30%ers. Well, at least we avoided being in the tortured 50%er group. I was happy at that restaurant seeing Francesca thoroughly enjoy herself, and was spared – because of my genes – the experience of watching her enjoy herself while simultaneously being assaulted by locker room pit stink.
We have truffle oil at home. It is rumored that smelling it repeatedly can improve your experience of it. I’m willing to risk that it’ll turn me more pro, and not … Well, I’ll let you know.
Postscript: I’ve smelled both the white and black truffle oils now. The white has a pleasant musky smell, while the black is less pronounced. Still, my olfactory senses are better than my tastebuds, which so far have only hunched their shoulders perplexedly.
Trip alternate #75
It is rumored that the Nice TGV station is somewhat grotty, and the taxi drivers of nonuniform honesty. And the Cote d’Azur, while having lots of scenery, no longer has a scene. So, now my thinking is TGV to Turin – a place neither of us has yet visited – then, after some few days, drive to Santa Margherita, making Francesca blissful, and finally doing at least 15 to 20 days in Paris. Sounds nice, but this is but early December. There are 5 months in which to vacillate to my hearts content.
We’re off to visit Francesca’s relatives in Florida in January for 4 days. I’ll tell you of my pelican encounters when I have them, but just this morning (now 2022.12.01) I read that a number of pelicans in South America have died of bird flu. Will this dread disease jump to humans and cull indiscriminately? I have mixed feelings on that matter, for were it to happen, it must bypass Francesca and myself … and the cafe scene in Paris. And the cafe scene locally. My requirements are few.
And now it occurs to me: How did Thanos know that his finger snap would not affect himself and his numerous minions? Did he cheat, keeping himself, at least, out of the the dust lottery? Seems hardly fair, that. Maybe his minions were not immune, for we know little of them (?) until every dusted creature in the universe was undusted in Endgame. And then suddenly there they are in all their brutish glory. But why vex myself with such issues, for – as a YouTube video makes clear – all that was needed to defeat Thanos was for Ant Man to go microscopic, slip into the Titan’s nostril, then expand, turning Thanos into goo in the process. (And, wait a minute! Thanos had that skinny sidekick who could do some kind of magic with a wave of his hands, and he was sent into space and froze to death prior to the initial Thanos dusting … yet, WTF, there he was back again after that dusting had been undone. Ok, yes, the Thanos at the end of Endgame was an earlier model, from the past. As was Gamora. Did he really manage to bring his whole past army … and once that army had been dusted, they weren’t available in the past … I need to take a nap. No! Just no! Don’t say Multiverse like you know what you’re talking about.)
And I can’t escape the suspicion that Dr. Strange very much resented the presence of a mental equal – or even superior, in my view (a condescending, snarky English accent does not make you a genius, just a prat) – and consequently lied about there being a single path to victory that required Tony Stark’s demise via selfless sacrifice. Every example of genius displayed by Stark involved the production of something astonishing, including, but by no means restricted to, his quantum GPS that led to the undoing of Dusting 1.0. Strange, on the other hand, was good with a slicing scalpel and a cutting quip, but his genius manifested primarily as attitude. And when he raised that single finger to Stark near the end, he had a distinctly pleased look on his face, signifying pleasure at the imminent demise of his only mental superior, as he saw it (he never took Rocket Raccoon seriously, and there again he displays his utter prat-ness). Still, the writers had a very loose handle on mathematics, physics, and genius in general. I’ve covered this in a previous episode, principally the idea that wiping out half of humanity, in particular, would have such a debilitating effect on society as a whole, especially given that this deficit would almost certainly disappear in about 40 years of breeding. Probably less, given the Baby-Boom effect. Grrr.
Influencing my ultimate decisions on 2023 EU travels is a mind travel I take every evening in the form of a YouTube music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlFYBObaw6Y, full screen; it’s not to everyone’s taste; my sister’s reaction was basically meh). So, yeah, let’s ignore the fact that this vid likely effects me in a unique way, but each time I view it I imagine sitting in a cafe on the Mediterranean coast (Ibiza? But I’m maybe too old for Ibiza), watching the sunset, a scattering of boats in the water, that music playing in the background, and I think, you know, I’ll skip Heaven if I can just have this for a few millennia. But I’ve always been a dreaming maverick, and you know what they say about dreaming mavericks.
Anyway, Santa Margherita is on the Mediterranean, although it has no option for the sun setting into the sea.
Dreaming Mavericks are Ignorable
A brief word about a couple of Peter Woit blogs (early December 2022), and how I perceived they related to me. Remember Natalie Wolchover? She’s the science journalist for Quanta Magazine, an online science magazine, who wrote an article about how Cohl Furey (a female, as is Natalie) was applying the algebra T = C ⊗ H ⊗ O, which the article did in fact term the Dixon Algebra. Well that’s all nice and good, except …
So recently Quanta Mag published another Natalie article which led the casual untrained reader to believe that MIT researchers had created a wormhole in a lab. Peter, of course, jumped on this rubbish article, proclaiming it to be, as it were, rubbish. Comments to these two blogs expressed disappointment in Natalie as a journalist. I offered this comment, aware that Peter would be unable to accept it:
“I am more of a mathematician than physicist, whatever my PhD might say, but I have sufficient knowledge of physics to have been from the get-go entirely uninterested in wormholes in a lab articles, of which there were a plethora on the science sites I frequent. At the very least, I felt, there were some extremely unwise journalistic decisions made prior to disseminating this piffle.
“As to Natalie W, I featured in one of her articles, but that article’s intent was to extol the work of a female physicist, one who was working on ideas I founded in the early 1980s, albeit reinterpreted. In general I enjoy and highly approve of such gender focused journalism. However, although I have published two books on the subject of the article, in 1994 and 2011, Natalie went out of her way to generate the impression that I had surrendered working in the field in the 1980s, dejected at my presumed failure to cadge an academic position (in fact, it was in 2000, after a year and a half as an adjunct at Harvard – a position that I was invited to continue with – that I gave up finally on academia). My interpretation of Natalie’s journalistic fabrication is that it strengthened her narrative of the lone female with new ideas fighting against a hidebound mainstream. Since that time I’ve had very little interest in anything Quanta Mag had to say, for I could never be certain their content was trustworthy.”
Once my comment was rejected, I sent Peter an email, letting him know he would have another opportunity to link up with us in Paris this coming Spring. I also reiterated my impression that in ignoring those 30 years of my work, which were by far my most fruitful, Natalie had interjected sexism (and maybe ageism?) into her article. Peter offered a different viewpoint:
“On the Nichol Furey front, again, her gender was helpful for the case of featuring her in Quanta, but the reason for dissing you I think is not so much wrong gender as being so low on the academic totem pole as to not count. Sorry, but that’s what it looks like to me…”
Indeed. True in part at least. Comments to Peter’s blog point out that the Simons Foundation, which funds Quanta Magazine, is an elitist institution, generally little interested in the output of maverick dreamers. But Nichol Furey isn’t an elite, although she has managed to rise higher in academia than did I, and I am very happy for her. But she is female, and my wife Francesca, whose Harvard PhD was earned not just by dint of her scientific genius, but also benefited from her deep understanding of academic politics (and the role her gender played in her progress from Harvard, to adjunct, to tenured professor) … Where was I? Anyway, when Francesca read the Quanta Mag article featuring me in a minor role, she was, at the time, 100% convinced that Natalie’s “dissing” of me had everything to do with my gender (and perhaps age, I think, in retrospect). At the time, Nichol’s position on the “academic totem pole” was certainly not higher than mine, with her half dozen or so publications, vs my 2 books and 30 or so publications. So, neither she nor I could have been considered Simons Foundation elites – still not, truth be told. So what did Natalie gain in ignoring my most fertile 30 years of work? Ask Francesca, if you’re brave enough. She is an intellectual beast (and love of my life).
So, I got that off my chest and feel lighter now. Let’s not bring this up again, okay?
Just to be clear, I am likely deluded in many ways, but I am not operating under the illusion that anyone reads my blog, so it is really just a private diary, focused for a while primarily on travel, that I hide in a very public way on the internet. It’s nice to have that out in the open, for it frees me to continue to ramble in any manner, and on any topic – even unrelated to travel – that pleases me personally. For example, this morning for breakfast I had ewe yogurt with honey, chopped almonds, and blueberries, along with a bit of pear, half a tangerine, and a slew of pills intended to keep me alive. How’s that for being forthcoming? Ok, dear diary …
In 2021 we flew BA to Europe (yes, you Brits, you are technically European), and it was a hideously fraught experience, albeit not entirely the fault of BA. In 2022 we flew AirFrance, our 2nd (?) time flying with them, and it was blissful, again. In my travelogue of that trip, I wrote: “This is a headline in a travel website I recently encountered: ‘London Heathrow turns into travel bloodbath as British Airways cancels 115 flights today alone’. Our decision to eschew Heathrow, and the UK in general, seems wise. At the present moment the onerous covid testing that plagued us last year is no longer necessary, but Vogons are Vogons, and I want nothing more to do with them.” My travelogue for 2021 was loaded with much more fiery invective, but I will spare you a repetition of that.
In 2021, hard and fast promises were made to avoid both BA and the UK in future. But then Putin and the dithering west (Biden included) conspired to throw the world into turmoil. Economies reeled. The stock market plummeted, including my IRA. Our vows were not proof against such an onslaught, although for us – me in particular – it was a financial assault. I had been supporting our travels with the interest accrued on my IRA for most of our last 5 trips. But there will be no interest this time; quite the contrary. And so, tail between my legs, I looked into how much it might cost us to fly Boston to Paris via LHR (shutter), using my tidy sum of accumulated BA miles to reduce the price. I could save $2k off last year’s price, so I just did it. I’ve never committed so early.
Francesca has an equal number of BA miles. Sigh. I feel trapped, but I do now have an AirFrance credit card, so we shall see.
We leave in May, 2023, and plan to be away 6 weeks. But this is just early October, 2022, so plans are going to be only verbal until January, the earliest. At that time I’ll raid my IRA, and I’ll have a better idea what we can afford. At the moment our thinking is: Nice; Antibes; a lovely village an hour to the east in Italy; 2+ weeks in Paris. Francesca was thinking we could ferry to Corsica and/or Sardinia from Nice, but really, that sounds a little strenuous for a 74 year old with cancer.
Speaking of that, in 12 days I’m back to MGH to see how it’s going, and to affirm – I hope – that the optimistic appraisal of my condition I got in July is still the one we’re going with. Yay optimism! (In my first visit with the oncologist, he said that, in the mean, I can expect 2.5 more years. That would have me dead by the end of January. Yay optimism!)
Today I went to the DMV to get a Real ID replacement for my driver’s license. I asked the woman behind the glass if this was for domestic flights, and she said yes, that, and entry into federal buildings. Intent on getting a smile from this woman (it’s not an easy job, most of the people she has to deal with having IQs that can be measured with the count of their fingers and toes), I told her in the past I have always managed to do these things using an air of self-importance. She chuckled. I bring joy and sunshine wherever I go.
7 Months to go
I’ve been reading (avidly), Kiki Man Ray, the story mostly about Kiki de Montparnasse, and her experiences with the art scene in 1920s Paris. Never heard of her? Well, I hadn’t either until a couple of months ago when that book was glowingly reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.
I just finished the chapter about her trip to Villefranche, a town just to the east of Nice on the Côte d’Azur. It was to have been a short trip, but what with carousing friends to keep her entertained, and hitting a policeman in the head with her purse, resulting in a stay in a dismal, almost medieval, jail cell for some days, she stayed longer than intended. It was only with the help of some well-connected friends from Paris that she narrowly avoided a 6 year (month? … yes, I think 6 month) sentence, and instead was released on probation. The testimony from her friends was enough to convince the judge that hers was an artistic temperament, and she herself an artist.
I love thinking that her artistic temperament was a cause for leniency in France. Some 20 years ago I had a job for some months creating content for an internet startup. My boss found my attitude sometimes aggravating, but he too treated me with some leniency, because, as he said out loud, I had an artistic temperament.
So, I frequently identify with Kiki. And when I found out that Villefranche is about as far east of Nice as Antibes is west, it affected me deeply, as far as what I feel like doing with our next trip. (Antibes is where Gerald and Sara Murphy had a villa that was often full of the likes of Scott and Zelda, and many other luminaries of the Paris art scene – including Kiki.) Two and a half weeks tootling from Antibes to Villefranche, centered in Nice, maybe making our way on a Vespa … well gosh. We’ll see. Francesca has stopped paying attention to my vacillating notions of what we’ll do when not in Paris, and indeed I haven’t ruled out Corsica. But I am very much enamored with the 1920s in Paris and the Côte d’Azur. Sadly, one or two things have changed in these places in the ensuing century.
Finally, my favorite writer is PG Wodehouse. In a short story he says this: “And then I began to see daylight. What exactly was the trouble I didn’t understand, but it was evidently something to do with the good old Artistic Temperament, and I could believe anything about that. It explains everything. It’s like the Unwritten Law, don’t you know, which you plead in America if you’ve done anything they want to send you to chokey for and you don’t want to go. What I mean is, if you’re absolutely off your rocker, but don’t find it convenient to be scooped into the luny-bin, you simply explain that, when you said you were a teapot, it was just your Artistic Temperament, and they apologize and go away.” Yeah, so anyway, I would argue it is a stronger argument for exculpation in France than in the USA, a country that laughed at Edith Piaf when she first visited that no-time-for-sentiment nation.
Yeah, but …
There is a magazine for the stylish, cultured, and well-off (maybe even well-to-do), called The Rake, that I encountered while googling information on Antibes and Villefranche. In it there was an article by one Christian Barker entitled “Contrarian: The Ruin of the Riviera”. In this the author writes:
“Picture if you will: My own most recent visit to the area, during the Monaco Grand Prix. On the evening following the big race, I fought my way through the Fairmont hotel’s driveway gridlock of garishly pimped-out hypercars, driven by the Philipp Plein-clad, Swarovski-studded ne’er-do-well sons of oil sheikhs, robber-baron oligarchs, kleptocrats, tax-dodgers and corrupt politicians — all ‘look-at-me’ roof-down cruising en route to some god-forsaken execrable nightclub or other… There to revel (just as they’d do during the day at greasy, sleazy ‘exclusive’ beach bars) in ever-so-conspicuously paying exorbitant prices for firework-embellished jeroboams of champagne, the contents of which they’d wastefully spray across the ample assets of their gold-digging semi-pro female companions.”
Yikes. Of course, that’s Monaco. I’ve written about that city. It’s visually stunning, but … You know, we didn’t have a bad time there watching the race from a boat, and walking about the town. There were many yachts and supercars, but while we found them fun to look at, we were on foot, so we experienced no gridlock. And we stayed just outside of Monaco in France, about 25,000 feet above the harbor – or so it seemed. We’ll likely visit again in 2023. Christian has this to say as well:
“As a well-off friend, whose father (a gentleman in possession of both excellent taste and the wherewithal to fully exercise it) owns a beautiful seaside villa on the Riviera, put it in a recent conversation: ‘Dad has no problem flying the entire extended family over from the States in first-class suites, or paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to charter a yacht when we’re there. But then we go to some really ordinary, ‘charming’ restaurant and they charge 60 Euros for a basic veal Milanese, plus 20 for a side of fries, and another 20 for a few leaves of salad? That drives him insane! It’s like Marrakech, except the urchins aren’t just filching a dollar here, a dollar there — they’re going for broke.’
“It’s all a far cry from Gerald and Sara Murphy’s day, less than a century ago. Simple pleasures, even just a spot of sunbathing, are now stratospherically expensive on the Riviera (seats at those beach clubs don’t come cheap — not when you’re paying 10 Euro per 30cl Evian, or 20,000 for a jeroboam of Dom). Where once this stretch of coast attracted the high born and highbrow, now it’s the lowest of the low of the ultra-high net worth. Taste and intellect are no longer the common currency, the Lost Generation’s sundrenched salon is gone — today, it’s only money that talks, not Cocteau.”
Ok, so Cocteau and his friends are long gone, and in their places are largely soulless millionaires and billionaires. The fame of those erstwhile cultured and talented individuals attracted empty people endlessly searching for anything to fill their emptiness. Of course they fail in that regard, but hedonism and chemical forgetfulness will do as a substitute.
The point is, these places are doubtless picturesque, but lacking in cultural ambience. It’s a classic example of every prospect pleasing – it really is pretty – and only man is vile – but when is that ever not true? Still, as we discovered a few years ago while touring Cinque Terre from a boat, staying on the boat and viewing these places from a distance is quite pleasant. Francesca still thinks tootling along the coast, maybe periodically setting foot onshore, might suit her to a tee. But anything involving boats generally fulfills all her dreams of la vie parfaite.
As to that magazine, The Rake, it touts itself as “The Modern Voice of Classic Elegance”. I like the sound of that, while simultaneously aware that my meager savings (especially now, with the stock market imploding) are insufficient by a factor of 10 or more for the required membership fee. I am not their intended audience.
Boston and a hospital
Three months had passed, and it was time yesterday for my latest visit to MGB (Mass General Brigham; MGH are passé initials). I’ve mentioned before that in addition to a 10 year old white boy scamp, there is a middle-aged heavyset black woman with a hearty laugh inhabiting my overcrowded multiple personality cranium. Well, there were 3 nurses in the phlebotomy area, all exactly that. I rolled up my sleeve for one of them and she looked at my arm, stroked her latex covered hand along it a couple of times, and said something like, “my my, your skin is so young and smooth”. She was really taken with the exterior of yours truly. Of course, then she had to go spoil the moment by sticking me with a 6 foot long samurai sword. Blood was needed.
Later, while waiting in the area set aside for waiting, another of these women got bossy with someone in the lobby who was supposed to be inside, but was being questioned by another staff person. I told her she was the boss, and she chuckled. Later still, on the way out after a perfunctory meeting with my oncologist’s assistant, I stuck my head in the phlebotomy room, caught the eye of that nurse again, and with a big smile told her she IS the boss. She laughed heartily. Fills me with warm fuzzies.
Much later, at home, I had an electronic exchange with the oncologist on another matter. He hoped I was doing well. I told him about the nurse and my smooth youthful skin, with a smiley face, and said I guess I’m doing ok. He replied that I am doing great. Since our flight to Paris is already booked, that was good to hear.
This morning over breakfast we watched a bit of Stanley Tucci’s show about Italy. This episode centered on Sardinia. It looked great, and Francesca doesn’t press the matter, but it’s clear she would like to go to Sardinia … maybe even instead of the Riviera. I must check out flight prices on AirFrance from CDG. This has been a good chat; thanks.
[Yeah, but it’s 3 days later now, and I just read that Villefranche is well worth a visit, the article going so far as to claim it’s the #1 spot in southern France. Now what. Stanley Tucci be damned.]
Until a decision is made, New Hampshire does have its charms:
My 2022 EU travel-blog is now at an end, and as I did at the end of my 2021 blog, I shall now spend a bit of one episode discussing theoretical physics stuff, a la Geoffrey. I can no longer do this very often, for the futility of it is debilitating, and even many of TP’s major stars, having had their work of over 40 years been proven wrong, are sauntering off into subjects still being funded, pretending this is where they’d intended to go all along. The party is over, and …
Imagine, if you will, you have spent decades discovering the mathematical framework that, in your madness, you are convinced is an essential component for building a true Theory of Everything … like I have done (spoiler alert: it isn’t madness; and it is real), and so you’re now past your prime, younger people, 30 years after you founded the field, are taking elements of your work (often without a hint of acknowledgment that I was there decades earlier), and mostly putting them together wrong (Mr. Potato Head’s nose does not go on his butt, for example), but it’s all too late, because the mainstream – without whose beneficence and approval no idea will ever receive nourishing attention – these guys (and they are mostly guys) are wandering in circles (like those Mongolian sheep I recently saw on the intertubes, pursuing each other for days in a circle because they’re incapable of looking beyond their immediate neighbors, in a vain hope, I suppose, that the sheep butts right in front of all of them know where they’re going), because their hope of having their very complicated, but ultimately simple, ideas proven correct has evaporated. Wow, super long sentence. The point is, there you are (I am) with a correct mathematical foundation to describe reality, and simultaneously the party is over. No one will ever care. It is now 2022.11.18, and Peter W’s last two blogs concern the trials of young people trained in maths and HEP theory as they search for jobs outside of these academic disciplines. Finance is high on the list. Quants help rich people get richer, and the quants themselves able to retire at least semi-comfortably (as happened to me).
Anyhum, there hasn’t been any reason to stick with theoretical physics for some time (nor even the ability, in my case), hence this erstwhile maths/physics blog has transmogrified into a travelogue, and yay, so much more fulfilling. Tired discussions of well worn orthodoxy are the meal of the day for many, but I’m in my mid 70s now. I’ve done my thing, I did it right, and nothing can prove me wrong. Please put that on my tombstone. Until then, bars and cafés have supplanted colloquia. I haven’t been to a colloquium in years. I’m either uninterested, or certain they’re wrong. Dark and Stormy, please.
The trouble right now is that my next trip with my wife is not scheduled until May 2023, and it is presently November 2022. I’ve already started my 2023 travelogue, and chapter 1 will appear in a couple of weeks. I don’t want to spoil that right now, so …
It’s end of semester for Francesca (again, not her real name), so she is very busy. Last week, Thanksgiving week, she was largely free. We went to the beach, patted many dogs, took some pictures. But you know, the surf web cam at The Wall in New Hampshire is very high quality, and many of my best beach photos are screenshots from that cam.
Years ago, when I used to share surfing stories with Facebook friends, one of them was aghast that I’d never done a dawny – getting in the water as the sun comes up and beating the crowds to good waves. I was entirely immune to his indignant chagrin, and continued to frowst about in bed in the wee hours in all the years since. The dawn picture above was taken from my bed. (That Facebook friend, when I displayed a political flexibility that meant I occasionally harbored opinions orthogonal to the rigid orthodoxy to which he ascribed, ceased to be any kind of friend at some point, and we’re both better off for it.)
Surfing happens less frequently than it used to, and it’s been over a year (2?) since I’ve been able to pop to my feet, so I’ve become a kneeboarder mostly now. The ADT drugs I’m on have messed with my strength and sense of balance.
Our favorite surf shop had to close for a time due to a fire in the adjoining restaurant. They had some outdoor sales to get rid of inventory, and to raise money, and at one of these I espied a longboard skateboard, and bought it.
I used to skateboard a lot, but when I first tried to stand on this beast (3x the length of the one I already owned), I was extremely shaky (euphemism for I couldn’t do it for the life of me). A few weeks later and I’m able to push off slowly and do a little route on a gentle slope of our upper driveway. Feels great, I must say.
Something needs to be said about the apartment we were spending our last week in. There were sliding glass doors that allowed one to separate the bedroom, its WC and shower, from the more spacious living room and kitchen part of the apartment, which had a comfortable sofa suitable for a smallish wife person to sleep on, and its own WC. All this would come in very handy, because we moved in on a Wednesday, and the next day those academic friends from London arrived, and although they knew there was a chance* they brought covid with them, they decided spending time with us was worth the risk. Risk? To whom? Why to us, of course.
On Friday the husband could hardly stay awake. The visitors left later that day. The next day I could hardly stay awake, and the day after that, Sunday, the fever and vomiting started. Francesca used one of the covid home testing kits we had with us, and gave me the bad news: covid positive. Shit, fuck, bull balls. I was more than a little disappointed. This apartment was in gallery/cafe central, and I’d need to spend our last days in it in bed. Fuck, shit, bull balls.
[*As it turns out, these visitors probably did not bring covid with them, and the 3 of us got it together, possibly at a Moroccan restaurant we went to their first night in Paris.]
Francesca moved into the living room, kept the sliding doors mostly shut, and would periodically watch to see if her husband’s feet were wiggling, this being taken as a sign of life. She tried to fix me healing food, but I’d lost all appetite, and the only thing I could keep down was yogurt. That was my last week in Paris, spent mostly in bed, and more than a little bit pissed. This 5 week trip was more dominated by foreign friends visiting us than any previous trip. Way more. And in the end, over two years after the Chinese exported their microbe to the world, it finally got us. And it was entirely avoidable. [Well, not really, as I said. Or maybe.] Francesca came down with a milder case, but yesterday, 3 weeks after initial infection, and now home (don’t ask), we both tested negative.
My health permitting further EU travels, will we allow any other foreign guests to intrude on our travels? Initially, when I was “very very angry”, my attitude was no. No capes, and no visitors. After a few days resting at home, and now feeling just “very angry”, I relented. All friends save two will be permitted to seek us out. [Again, reason for excluding them was unwarranted, so …] I have not told the London duo that they are personae non gratae, forbidden our refulgent presence in future, but correspondence on their end has dried up*, compunction (?) finally ascendant.
[*Correspondence has restarted, and they corrected my impression that their son had recently had covid, leading to my impression they could be disease vectors. In fact that spawn had had it months earlier. Still, we are feeling ill disposed to encouraging visitors next time, and my oncologist saw no reason there shouldn’t be a next time, so yay.]
Prior to London duo arrival Francesca and I went to new Top Gun film, and Francesca was considerably more keen on the prospect than I. But she had a ball, and as the film was in English, with French subtitles, she laughed heartily at several of the lines of dialogue. A French couple sat to our right, the male closest, and he found Francesca’s enthusiasm amusing and infectious. His date, Francesca says, would periodically peer around her date and glare knives at Francesca (yet another French coquette). She should have restricted her bile to her date, for in response to Francesca’s enthusiasm, he overcame his French reticence and began laughing at some of the lines that were amusing Francesca. His date, perceiving her date to be under the influence of another woman, was unamused. As usual, I noticed none of this, but Francesca’s ability to absorb social interactions in her vicinity is truly spooky. The date – the girl – exuded vapidity, and Francesca annoyed and perplexed her, and her date found Francesca far too interesting. Yeah, so, that happened.
The day the London duo arrived we went to a Moroccan restaurant, as mentioned. Peter Woit, my favorite physics blogger, was to have joined us, but he came down with something, which likely saved him from catching covid (well, not really; he told me later it was covid; and, you know, we traveled all over France and Italy in 2021 and nothing, and it was, or so we thought, by far the more dangerous year).
Moroccan dinner done, the four of us wandered over to a nearby park. We sat and ordered drinks at a nearby kiosk, and sat at a table to enjoy same. Or we would have enjoyed them had the London male, whose displeasure with our company was coming to a boil, not said something of a political nature that Francesca wasn’t about to let rest. A heated debate ensued, alternately frightening and amusing nearby patrons. At one point I looked across to the London wife, who was, like me, a noncombatant, and said, “How ‘bout them Red Sox?”. This had a very marginal defusing effect. Eventually I did interject with some equivocal words of wisdom, and we all calmed down. When we departed we left a barely visible trail of smoke behind us.
We shortly thereafter encountered something curious. Along the parks edge, on the street, there were around 20 tinted window police (?) vehicles, one full of electronic gear. And dotted along the whole stretch were numerous gendarmes carrying some lethal looking weaponry.
Now, it must be said, our London visitors, are somewhat timid, so when they saw me approach one of the heavily armed guys, they scurried (Francesca says they actually ran) away quickly, wanting nothing to do with whatever I was up to. And here’s what I was up to. I approached the nearest of the lethally armed guys, and indicating all the vehicles, and his equally lethally armed compatriots, asked, “Pour moi?” Initially perplexed as to what the fuck I could possibly mean, he replied “Pour vous?” I beamed in a friendly manner, he got the joke, smiled in response, and a I nodded and carried on, my London friends now but specks in the distance, hoping that that vast distance was sufficient to escape the fusillade of bullets that would inevitably be aimed at me. In the end they needn’t have worried; fewer than five shots were fired in my general direction.
Having caught up with visitors and Francesca, we ended up wandering into a gallery show with displays of really awful art. One of the patrons tried to pick up the male London friend, but we saved him. Evidently bronze etchings were involved.
Further perambulations brought us to an enormous area of cafes full of people having excellent cafe time. I love cafe time. I got the London duo to confess that there was nothing like that in London.
Something else of note occurred our last week in Paris. The Mona Lisa was attacked: “Witnesses said that the would-be vandal approached the artwork wearing a long wig and dressed as an elderly woman in a wheelchair. He allegedly leapt up, attempted to smash the glass, and failing that, smeared it with cake. As he was tackled by guards, he threw roses, Reuters reported. He shouted “think of the earth, people are destroying the earth!” in French as he was taken away by security. A Louvre statement confirmed the attack on the artwork involved a ‘patisserie.’” Ah, Paris. Ah, France.
I have a few notes put at the base of this travelogue as reminders. One of these is “hyper psychedelic dream”. As some of you may know, in my teens I “experimented” with LSD. This is not to say that I put some of the chemical in a test tube and analyzed it. No. I popped pills, the third and last time overdosing. So, over 50 years later, I’m sleeping in France, and I have a dream that in many ways exceeded in weirdness an LSD overdose. Lots and lots of colors, and things happening that made little sense. On a scale of 1 to 10, its bizarreness exceeded 11. By a lot. You should have been there. It may have been due to something I ingested – probably some cheese. I am strongly affected by some cheeses, Camembert in particular, which ought to be illegal.
I have another reminder note that says simply, “Pyramid vs friendly dog”. This is a really good story, or did you miss the part that it involves a dog. Here’s the thing, though: I haven’t a clue what that note refers to. Disappointed? Not half as much a I am. We never went to the Louvre pyramid, so it wasn’t that. And why should there be a “vs” between “Pyramid” and “friendly dog”? Perplexing.
A final note regarded catching covid from [with] London friends. I’ve modified this a trifle, to protect the innocent, but this is a text I sent to French Maryline: “The problem is, we’re really-good-fun, and many of our friends crave our really-good-funness, and visiting Suzanne and myself allows them to experience really-good-fun. And that is why this pair of Brits – actually just the wife (the husband, with each passing year, finds us more and more annoying) – knowing there was a risk that they were covid carriers, were willing – nay, desperate – to put us at risk so that they (she) might briefly experience really-good-funness, as their lives in London were 180 degrees out of phase with that state. She hoped, I believe, that the covid already in their home would not affect us. She was wrong. The lesson: being really-good-fun is hazardous to your health.” [Well, it is, even if none of that actually happened.]
And speaking of disappearing glaciers, as I write this (2022.07.19) parts of Britain are reaching temperatures never before reached. Some airport runways started to melt. Meanwhile, in France, this headline: “Outdoor public events have been banned in an area of France as a record breaking heatwave sweeps across Europe.” So, sure, maybe I have years to live, but I do wonder if European travel will remain viable for as long as I am viable. (And now, at the end of August, 2022, much of the USA, Europe, and China, are drying up. Some bizarre things are being exposed as the waters recede. The earth and I seem to be crumbling in synch.)
Leaving Avignon (screaming) early meant getting 3 nights in hotel in Paris. This was eventually done – at some cost due to Airbnb snafu (you don’t need to know; suffice it to say one of us was panicking and pushing her husby to make questionable decisions). The hotel was directly across from Le Sorbonne. Having checked in we went to a nearby cafe and ordered cocktails. It was 10°C cooler than Avignon; a cooling breeze was cooling us with its gentle cool breeziness; we were surrounded by academics – students and professors. Oh my fuchsia gods! After Avignon this felt like ascending to an ethereal plain; our kind of place; our kind of people. We both simultaneously, once cafe seated and noticing our surroundings, felt blissful. And we were entertained by a very eager old academic codger entertaining a young coquette. She was dressed in a frilly thing and was doing nothing to disabuse the eager old guy that his drooling eagerness might be unwanted. And it would be entirely inappropriate, I suspect, to judge this from an American view of morality. This was France. Francesca overheard her talking, and it was clear she was intelligent, a polyglot, and totally in control of whatever was happening there. In America such an over eager elder would be viewed with disapprobation; a potential abuser of position and authority. In France – and I’m just making this up – the weakness of heterosexual males is often viewed as something to be taken advantage of. Yeah, so, that’s the news from the Geoffrey News Network (GNN), respected the world over.
Email: [Question: Le Sorbonne is incredibly famous and prestigious; and yet I can’t remember any big ideas coming out of l’université – at least in physics – that I’d consider noteworthy. This statement has non-infinitesimal evidence supporting it, but my general impression is the researchers and professors spend their time in cafes, smoking, drinking, and discussing the meaning of meaning. Vrai ?]
Email reply from London academic: [Non non, en fait Le Sorbonne c’est de qualite inferieure – (au-dessous Ecole Normale Superieure et Ecole Polytechnique..) ]
Well well, who knew. Le Sorbonne fairs better in popular fiction that requires a stuffy Parisian academic environment. And it certainly looks austerely prepossessing. We were across the street from what had to have been it’s main building. We wanted to look inside, but without an ID proving we belonged that was impossible. The main building at MIT is larger and even more austerely prepossessing, but its doors are open to all, the end of its infinite hallway a pinpoint due to the mathematics of perspective. What is Le Sorbonne hiding I wonder? Well, having spent years in academic buildings, I don’t really wonder. I know. And it’s not super interesting. And yet, looking at the facade one can easily imagine how difficult – nay, impossible – it would be to rid the building of visitors desirous of camping out in some far corner. We could have saved ourselves 3 nights in a hotel, for example.
Last blissful days
Anyway, those 3 nights opposite Le Sorbonne, and one night at the Airbnb, were a few more days we spent alone in Paris without visitors. We were content. We were alone. We had Le Récamier soufflés.
So, our original choice for an Airbnb was a right bank place we’d stayed at before with a great view of the Eiffel Tower. I contacted the guy running the place. He remembered us, but unfortunately that place was booked for the days needed. But he had another place on the left bank in a neighborhood full of art galleries. It had recently been renovated. Yay and ok. But, he added, he’d prefer that all transactions be done without actually going through the Airbnb app. This was, I assume, so Airbnb does not get a cut, and they maybe avoid taxes. Win-win for them; not so much for us. We had to come up with over 1800€ in cash. This required close to an hour in search of viable banks (4), and 5 different bank cards. But in the end, despite the uncomfortable nature of this transaction, the deal was done, and the place was ours.
After moving in we had lunch at Les Deux Magots, a cafe/restaurant evidently frequented by Luminous Years luminaries back in the 1920s. Unfortunately its cachet was largely undiminished, and many of the clientele were …
Text message to Maryline: [Went to Les Deux Magots today. Still trying to wash off the pretension.]
We were seated next to a curvaceous young woman, sitting alone, dressed in a number of threads that could be counted on the fingers and toes of one hand. She almost immediately left in a huff, our clearly non-celebrity character besmirching the image she was trying to project. No sugar daddy was going to make any moves on her with us sitting next door. Fucking tourists! Merde!
We did more stuff that day, all of it more pleasurable than Les Deux Magots, and even though I don’t exactly remember what we did, The Two Maggots had set the bar very low. Well, we did view a great many art galleries, and discovered two cool sci fi themed shops around the corner from our apartment. That is so so French. In college, over 50 years ago, a friend introduced me to French graphic novels. They were groundbreaking, and the States has yet to catch up … because we’re a colony, too young to have much culture, and so we’re too embarrassed to be seen partaking of an art form we consider frivolous. Oh, and the culture – what there is – is dominated by burly, head shaved Anglo Saxons, for whom even cafe culture is anathema. Fuchsia! Why the hell am I not French, or Italian?
The drive to Nice was the usual: 3 hours of hand cramping tunnels and trucks. And our Airbnb was as advertised: a comfortable studio apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, in the middle of the Promenade des Anglais. This was a problem, although I did not know this at first.
Let’s talk about that name: Promenade des Anglais. In the misty past the English with any means, thoroughly fed up with their dank homeland, would flock here periodically to soak up some Mediterranean sunshine. Of course, there were many sorts of foreign visitors, but few as unsavory as the English, after whom the Promenade is named.
So, anyway, the Promenade itself consists of 6 lanes of auto traffic, separated by curbs, grass, and fence structures, from a 2 lane bike/skateboard/etc path, bordering a very wide paved walkway – the actual Promenade. And then there was the beach … sniff … just a moment … talk amongst yourselves. I need a tissue.
The well-healed for whom the Promenade was built required that it remain clear and clean. In particular, sand from the lovely beach would find its overly intrusive way up onto the Promenade when the wind was onshore. Oh no no no. You French must fix this or we shall take our foreign money elsewhere. Oui oui oui, d’accord. So they dumped over a meter of cobbly stones, 2 to 6 inches in diameter, onto the sand, thereby thoroughly squelching the sand’s desire to socialize. And simultaneously, as walking barefoot on cobbles of that size is excruciatingly painful, they rendered the beach useless save to the most hearty. (We swam once and gave up the practice thereafter; Francesca’s feet took two days to heal.) Meanwhile, world wars having given the well-healed a spanking, they no longer stroll on the Promenade much. Now its promenaders are distinctly more prolish (like us). So why not lose the cobbles and get the beach back? Partly because fuchsia Unesco has declared the place a World Heritage Site. It’s too pretty to interfere with. It wasn’t until the 3rd of our 4 days in Nice that we discovered that the city is not just a pretty Promenade wasteland; there is a charming Italianesque village at the harbor end.
We discovered these good bits of Nice when we encountered the tour tricycles near the old-town. These are electric assisted covered pedal vehicles that can be used as either a pleasant taxi service, or city tour vehicles. We quickly settled with one guy who was studying for a PhD in the linguistics of virtual reality. Utterly cool. Modern world. Anyway, we got on swimmingly with this Savo, and it was he who first took us as part of his tour to the Italianesque harbor area. The next day we asked him (via Whatsapp) to taxi us there so we could spend some quality time in this faux Santa Margherita.
He dropped us off, and we took a little water taxi from one side to the other, at which point I made the huge error of having strong coffee just before lunch.
Why an error? Yeah, so, wait for it. I do some googling and determine a likely place for lunch. I read a review: 3 stars. Really? I investigate. The reason it doesn’t have more stars: a woman seeing to the needs of some diners – one female in particular – was occasionally gruff and unfriendly. The (assumed) Millennial Princess writing the review was quite convinced she deserved better. Her mommy treated her better. She had always been catered to, so where does this gruff French woman get off not kowtowing to her. Anyway, she made no mention of the food, but she inspired in me a strong need to meet this gruff French woman.
Text from Francesca’s French friend, providing context: “Geoffrey, you surely complain, judge and criticize a lot; I think you are ready to become a French citizen. Dual citizenship is legal 😋” Yes, yes, I already mentioned this, but it merits repetition, and it fills me with warm fuzzy yearnings.
We met the gruff woman almost immediately. She ran the place, and, indeed, were I a Millennial, I’d have been affronted by this wonderful Gaul.
And here’s where the earlier cup of strong coffee starts to influence this drama. I start getting a bit hyper – wired – and I am unaware of it. Francesca notices, however. We are sitting next to a pair of Italians, now living in Paris. How do I know this? Because near the dessert course we get to chatting with them. Typical information is exchanged between international strangers, and then the conversation drifted to less typical topics, and I go into full on anecdotal comedy mode. We’re actually conversing, but I begin to dominate, and as the audience is frequently rolling in the aisles, I do not relent. (No one else there has the repartee disease as strongly as I.) At one point, as gruff Gaul is heading off on a scooter to get fresh supplies, I sneak a picture of her. A nearby waitress laughs.
Soon the meal is nearly done, I go to the facilities, and Francesca asks the Italians if I was talking too much. They assure her that they found the whole performance quite entertaining.
But I am not done. Gruff Gaul is now back, and I ask her if she’ll come to the table for a photo with me. She does, and puts on a smile. I ask her to look a little fierce, and I try to emulate, but fail miserably because I’m enjoying myself too much.
Later Francesca goes inside to pay this fierce-some femme, and having done so, adds, “And by the way, my husband is in love with you.” She replies, “Oh, then, I’ll come say goodbye.” Shortly thereafter, we get up to leave, and I go over to look into the restaurant interior (naturally we were seated outdoors). She spied me looking all puppy doggish and came out. Double cheek presses were given, goodbyes said, and off we went (goodbyes also said to Italians, who may have been wondering what just happened). As Francesca and I sauntered away, she asked me if I was aware how wired I’d been. I was not, at least at the time, but now that she pointed it out it was obvious. It has happened before, and I wondered what had induced it this time. Ah. The strong pre lunch coffee!!! This hyperdrive phenomenon is (almost?) always chemically induced.
And by the way, I gave the restaurant a 5 star review, mentioning how annoying that prior 3 star review was. Millennials, am I right? My review:
“One person gave this 3 stars for grumpy poor service, one lady in particular. Well, this is France, not DisneyLand, and we loved the food, and loved this woman. Maybe I saw myself in her. She was all smiles by the end – maybe my poor French softened things. Anyway, we loved the food and the people. If we ever return to Nice, we shall return to Le Marlin.”
The drive to Avignon the next day is unremarkable, marred at the end by the Fembot sending us to the wrong train station. Our fault, entirely. Fembot blameless.
Eventually we get to correct station (TGV), follow rental car instructions for rental car return, park vehicle in appropriate spot, reassemble luggage towers, push them over to Sixt guy, hand him keys, tell him car in better condition than when we got it. Great, he says. And we leave. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the great thing about returning cars in France. They have little patience for the technical minutiae of car returns. No one in France ever actually looks at our cars, clipboard in hand, and checks them over. Our gas tank was near empty, but never mind, they had the keys, and their job was done.
We got a cab to hotel. Temperatures were slated to be in mid 90s (Fahrenheit) each day of our stay, but we thought we could take it for a few days. Shortly thereafter …
Wait. Why Avignon? Well, there was a TGV from there to Paris, and I’d heard of the place, its name evoking ancient quaintness, and popes at some point in history. And that’s it. I did no further research, and I picked the hotel, so I am to blame for … There’s also a TGV to Paris from Nice. Fuchsia.
So, yeah, from time of arrival, to several hours later that same day, there was a linear progression from thinking, “well, ok, it’s hot, but these alleys are quaint and a little cooler”, to concussing myself twice on a stone lintel above an alcove in our ground floor room (stairways to upper floors narrow, winding, and get narrower as you ascend; no elevator in this place that touts itself as quaintly medieval; and there’s no lounge! Having arrived at the wrong time, we got inside with a door code and had to wait on some steps for the owner to show up at 14:00.) Anyway, the little alleys end at some point, and as you near the periphery the populous gets seedier and seedier, the ambiance becomes kind of horror movie fun fair, and the two of us simultaneously reached the point of “get us the fuck out of here!!!” To the owner of the hotel we’re blaming our early departure on the heat and my cancer, and I can’t say for certain that this is not a contributing factor. The guy that runs the hotel has been friendly and accommodating; I have no interest in cranking at him. And in the end he was amiable, but of course we’d passed the point where a refund was in the cards, so amiability was easy.
This work of art is directly opposite the former Papal Palace, and it will always be my favorite image of that benighted town.
We stayed one night out of 4 booked. The type of tourists in town – at least those we were near enough to to make discreet observation viable – were gormless, having been attracted to Avignon as its name conjures up quaint, and ancient religiosity – something out of a 1930s movie. And, indeed, the place we are staying is in a 400 year old building, although only a fraction of the original stones survive. Still, it was more suited to medieval backpackers than the two of us. So, yeah, but, the point is, gormless, inexperienced tourists attract predators, and in a larger area outside the confined old town Francesca noticed an uncomfortable amount of attention being paid to us. Mmmm, fresh meat. (At one point a young guy with an unsettling gleam in his eye rapidly approached Francesca and started blabbering about something. Well, before he got within range my excellent peripheral vision enabled me to spot him, turn, and put myself between him and Francesca, who had no interest in the fellow other than to increase the distance between her and him. I put my hand on his shoulder in a firm, but not unfriendly way, looked him steadily in the eye, and said, “Au revoir.” And we sauntered off without further pursuit.)
And Francesca also noticed there were few if any shops catering to the well-healed. More of a backpacker and first time tourist vibe. You know, we are not rich, but we do enjoy frowsting about in places the wealthy find satisfactory. Avignon is, in our opinion, the opposite of that.
Being at a hotel with no cooking facilities, that first (and only) evening we wandered out and found a place to purchase munchies. There was an American couple at a nearby table. The male was incensed that the salad served him in no way resembled those he was accustomed to in his beloved American homeland. Sigh. You know Disney World has a faux European area. Why not go there? (But, really, who am I to cast aspersions? Remember the story of a much younger, green-about-the-gills, Geoffrey getting steak tartare in Marseille? “Excuse me! Will this be cooked at some point?”)
The other kind of tourist – and there are many – are a kind we encountered in Galway: young, faux hip, on a summer adventure to a place that has lots of stuff, a religious vibe, and lots of other youths like themselves. Galway is smaller, with fewer public facilities, so it was far more gross.
Anyway, our train is changed, and a comfy hotel near the Sorbonne is waiting for us later today.
Text: [At TGV station I walked over to say hi to chocolate lab. “OMG, this guy is coming to see me, and he is scratching me! I must reward him with vigorous tail wags and by wrapping my mouth around his arm.” Good dog. My arm got moistened.]
Text from train moving over 160mph: [This train moves just like the Acela, if the Acela were dropped from an airplane.]
[Note added 2022.08.06: Checked Avignon forecast for first 2 weeks of August; every day nearly 100°F. Guy who gave us ride back home from the airport said he’d been there and liked it. “What month did you visit?” “December.” Yeah, ok.]